Alice has always been the kind of woman that follows the rules. On the surface, she leads an enviable life. She has an adoring husband, a beautiful son, and lives a comfortable existence. Alice is satisfied with her life…this is until her husband disappears, and leaves her penniless and alone. With her security torn away, Alice faces the task of saving her home and providing for her son. With little options to fix her situation, Alice turns to an unconventional method to earn money.
Josephine Mackerras‘ “Alice” is one of this year’s big winners at SXSW. It took home the Grand Jury Award for Narrative Feature, as well as CherryPicks’ inaugural Female First Feature prize. The film is a stunning feature debut from Mackerras, who’s short films have been seen all over the festival circuit. Her shorts, “A Sign,” “Modlitba,” “L’enfant perdu,”and “Diva” have shown at over 90 festivals, which includes Slamdance, AFI, and Raindance.
In “Alice,” Emilie Piponnier brings a vulnerable, yet powerful performance as the title role. She transitions seamlessly from a woman on the edge, to a woman who’s confident and in control. Following her husband Francois’ (Martin Swabey) disappearance, Alice discovers that he spent their earnings on high-end escorts. Initially disgusted, Alice is intrigued when she learns about the earning potential of escorts. After exhausting every option to pay her debts, Alice decides to join their world. With her innocent, “good girl” appearance, she quickly becomes a success with clients. Ironically enough, Alice thrives in the same space that destroyed her marriage.
While Alice navigates her new career, she befriends fellow escort Lisa (Chloé Boreham). Charming and intelligent, it’s easy to see why Lisa is a success in her own right. From the beginning, Lisa a positive influence in Alice’s life, and shows her how to navigate her new career. While they’re together, they discuss their lives and how they find empowerment in their profession. Lisa plans on going to a university, and Alice dreams of going to New Zealand. However, Alice’s devotion to her son keeps her from leaving Paris. As Alice starts to reach financial independence, another setback arises…Francois tries to wedge his way back into the picture.
While Alice could easily feign bitterness, she uses escorting to turn her life around. For Alice, selling her services isn’t shameful. In many other films, sex work is shown as a last resort for a desperate situation. At first, the same rings true for “Alice”. However, Alice doesn’t allow the experience to strip her of her dignity. Instead, she sees the opportunity as a means to liberate herself. For the first time in years, Alice has extra free time, a sense of self, and is the sole breadwinner in her home.
Despite leaving Alice to fend for herself and her son, Francois attempts to win her back. Alice is unwilling to reignite the relationship, but Francois is insistent. Once he learns about her profession, he uses it to destroy Alice and the confidence she’s built.
One thing that “Alice” drives home is that a woman with her own agency is a threat to a weak man. Once Francois realizes that Alice doesn’t need him anymore, and makes a means from his vice, he takes offense. No longer in control of his wife, Francois aims to weaken Alice in any other way he can. “Alice” turns the shame of sex work on its head, and uses it to disarm the stigma that surrounds it.
“Alice” is a film that chronicles a woman’s emotional journey to reclaiming control of her life. One of this year’s must-see films, “Alice” is a revelation for audiences, telling us that it’s OK to choose the paths we take, despite what society tells us. It’s a refreshing film that combats the stigma against escorts, and provides another window into motherhood. We need more of that. Based on her debut feature, we’re looking forward to what Jospehine Mackerras comes up with next.